3 NOVEMBER 1979, Page 17

Understanding cancer

Sir: In her review 'Kill or Cure' (15 September), Elisabeth Whipp contends that The Cancer Re ference Book implies that we are in the middle of some monstrous cancer epidemic. The book, she writes, 'would have you cowering in a hermetically-sealed, sterilised, chemical-free fall-out shelter.' What an unfortunate misreading. Professor Levitt and I would not have people cower. Nor would we have them campaign irresponsibly for the elimination of all cancer-causing agents in the environment. We do write, after all, that people may choose not to exert control, if they believe that the benefits of a particular cancer-causing agent will outweigh its risks. For Ms Whipp to suggest that we rail fanatically against all chemicals — including oxygen and carbon, which are not cancercausing agents — is unjust. She encourages her readers to dismiss our real, and reasoned, position: namely, that 'people must understand the causes of cancer before they decide what risks are tolerable and what risks unavoidable. To understand the causes of cancer is to know that, within limits, the disease can be prevented' (my italics). • Lest I seem ungrateful for Ms Whipp's praise, I hasten to add that I appreciate her description of the book as 'an admirable exposition of modern oncology.' In writing the book, Professor Levitt and I intended to explain in readable, jargon-free prose all that is known about cancer — its character, causes, and treatment. If the book assists patients and their families in tufderstanding the disease, and if it helps them to choose sound medical treatment that will prolong both life and pleasure in living, we will be well rewarded.

Elissa S. Gore/nick University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado, USA